Restorative Storytelling: Kaleigh Mrowka on Using Story Circle in Residential Spaces

Kaleigh Mrowka is an Assistant Director for Residential Life at UMBC.  She uses story circles and storytelling in the context of restorative practices for proactive community building and for responding to harm with residential communities on campus.

When we’re talking about restorative practices in the context of storytelling and circle work, we’re really talking about a philosophy of centering individual and community relationships as a way of moving communities forward and solving problems. People often think of restorative justice, which is really how we solve problems as a community and think differently about bringing people back into community spaces when things go wrong. … When we talk about restorative practices, we talk about it both as a philosophy and as a set of tools all the way from how do we communicate using affect in everyday conversation through how do we use circles both proactively to community responsively when something goes wrong, all the way up to the formal conferences where people that have created significant harm in a community, have the opportunity to have their voice heard and have the voice of the victim heard in the same space in order to be able to solve problems and fix issues as a community to resolve that harm.(KM)

Story Circle in Residential Spaces

Residential halls have used circle methodology without really calling it or being intentional about it for a really long time. But we’ve really tried to center that as a practice because we know it strengthens the communities that we have here. Students start off the year in a circle to set community standards with each other. It’s a way that they commit to their community. It’s a way that they learn who is on their floor, what’s important to them, and they’re able to think about the impact that they’re going to have on the communities that they’re going to be in.  …Almost all of our four meetings and conversations are done in circle format from sitting down with their RA to fill out their roommate agreement meeting.(KM)

The circle helps people to be able to share. I think that’s a really critical piece that we’ve learned is that people’s ability to tell their story within residential spaces really matters. That students can come to the table and bring their whole selves into the community that they’re in. That really transformed what that community can look like for them and their sense of belonging here at UMBC.(KM)

International Institute for Restorative Practices

We’re affiliated with the International Institute for Restorative Practices, who does a lot of work in K-12. But when you look at higher education, at how do we create spaces in higher education settings, storytelling circle work, restorative practices can thrive. Knowing that there’s this movement nationally to help students become more engaged members of their community, to think critically about this loneliness problem that we have, the sense of disconnection that students are reporting both in surveys and in qualitative data. We really believe that storytelling circle work, restorative practices, bringing relationships back to the center of learning can really change that.(KM)

Voice and the Space to Connect in the Student Experience

When I think about voice in the student experience, I think that’s really critical to building community. If you’re thinking about a residential space where we want people to learn how to live in community in a way that many of them haven’t done, the ability to feel safe and bringing their voice into that community is important. If they’re not showing up as their whole selves, they’re not going to build the strength of relationship. They’re not going to learn from people who have different perspectives from them. And so by giving them voice, we’re giving them space to connect and to learn how to show up in spaces, how to show up in communities in a way which will serve them both here at UMBC and beyond. And that in itself is a form of agency. … I think that circle work allows us to think really critically about the process of making sure that people have voice. In circle work, everybody has a chance to speak. Everybody has a chance to make their voice heard and to hear the voices of others. And both of those pieces are so critical as components of this work that we do.(KM)

Hearing the Voice of Students in Evaluation

One of the things that students tell us pretty regularly is that the ability to come together in spaces where their voices heard matters for their experience. That it contributes to their sense of belonging here. That it contributes to their ability to make friends, to feel connected to their academic programs to their residential spaces and to the university. We know that students don’t stay in college environments if they don’t feel connected. I think that’s so critically important.  I would also say if you’re really talking about story work, I hope that student voices are in this conversation too. …We can assess and take a survey and tell you how they feel, but the truth is … the assessment data that really matters are those stories that are coming out of our students being able to connect differently around circle works.(KM)

Beyond Community Engagement, A Lasting Impact

I think bringing this type of work into spaces outside of the community engagement spaces that we’re familiar with can be amazingly transformative. … What folks are finding in research and anecdotally too, is that when you build strong relationships using the same methodology that you want to use, when you solve those problems, when something goes wrong students are able to better make connections, they’re better at it, better able to understand the impact that their behaviors have on others.  I think that’s also true in our spaces and university spaces and workspaces. I think that that’s really important to remember that this type of work doesn’t just get applied within a community organization or within a classroom and go away. These are skills and knowledge that people can bring into their everyday relationships in their everyday communities and really make those spaces better and stronger and make their relationships, you know, more productive and better able to make change when they want to do that.(KM)

Recorded on February 27, 2020     Interview by Bev Bickel  Edited by Bill Shewbridge